Streetside Gardens

In some ways, the underused part of your property next to the street is an ideal place to add native plants. Instead of allowing stormwater to flow over the compacted soil into the storm system, you can capture it before it leaves your property and put it to good use. Plants near the street can also be used to create privacy.

Before you start digging, though, consider these potential issues:

  • Underground utilities and overhead wires

  • The need for people to get to their cars

  • The need for people to be able to safely cross the strip to reach the sidewalk

  • Mowing by VDOT (see this page on infrastructure easements)

  • Community association or municipal restrictions. For example, Arlington County actively discourages plantings other than lawn next to the street. (See below.)

  • Piles of snow which could break shrubs

  • Salt from the road

  • Reflected heat

  • The need to garden and weed instead of mow

  • Dog poop and pee (see this page)

  • Access to the mailbox, utility boxes

  • A clear sidewalk with no vegetation encroaching (as that can be a trip hazard and impede use of the sidewalk by people with disabilities)

  • Compacted soil

  • High pH from leaching from concrete

  • Sight lines at corners to allow drivers to see oncoming traffic

  • The risk that a utility company or VDOT may tear up plantings when working in the area

An important goal for both aesthetic and functional success is to keep plants from flopping outside the planting space, either by using low growing plants at the edges or by placing taller plants far enough back. If cars park at the curb, passengers will need to have a place to step, either on the curb if it is wide enough or on stepping stones that you provide. Make it clear to people where to step, so you don’t end up with compacted soil in the entire area.  Keep in mind that garden beds with very low growing plants in full sun will require more weeding than those with taller plants or in the shade.

Salt-tolerant native plants

To quickly find salt-tolerant plants, open this spreadsheet and use your computer's “find” function (Ctrl-F on Microsoft).

Does your locality require lawn in the hellstrip? Make it native!

Few native plants can withstand heavy foot traffic, but some will do fine if only stepped on occasionally.  Examples of native plants that are very low growing and could even withstand a lawn mower include Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), Wild Strawberry (Fragraria virginiana) and various low-growing sedges that look just very much like turf grass, such a Carex pensylvanica, appalachia, radiata. Check our search app for details about growing conditions.

The sedges in the foreground look messy and force people to step on them. The Iris cristata beyond them stays inside the curb.

Stepping stones will help as these new plants grow up. Be aware that small stones get swallowed by taller plants.

Relatively tough, low growing native plants

Full sun

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida and hirta)  Salt tolerant

Blue Mist Flower (Conoclinium coelestinium)

Common Yucca (Yucca filamentosa)

Fragrant sumac ‘Gro-Low’ (Rhus aromatica)  Salt tolerant

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)

Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccininum angustifolium)   Somewhat salt tolerant

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata)

Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata)   Salt tolerant

Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa)

Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta)  Salt tolerant

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Threadleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata)  Somewhat salt tolerant


 

Shade/Part Shade

Blue Mist Flower (Conoclinium coelestinium)

Blue Wood Sedge (Carex glaucodea/ flaccosperma)    Salt tolerant.

Common Wood Sedge (Carex blanda)

Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata)

Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccininum angustifolium)    Somewhat salt tolerant

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)   Salt tolerant

This method of keeping plants from flopping on the walkway would also work streetside.The metal edging shows the mowers where to mow.  Montgomery Park, Alexandria.

Planting the taller plants further back kept them from flopping over the curb.

In its third year, this Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) decided to flop. The ‘Standing Ovation’ cultivar would have been a better choice next to a walkway.

Is there a ditch next to your road? See our page on planting in ditches.

Street trees

Read about planting and protecting street trees on the native trees page. For details about the relative merits of various species, see this spreadsheet. Do not forget to allow for any overhead wires!

Tall trees that work well next to streets include:

  • American Holly (Ilex opaca)

  • Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum)

  • Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica)  Great fall foliage

  • Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)  Interesting bark. Seeds could be problematic on a sidewalk.

  • Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

  • Oaks  

    • White Oak (Quercus alba)  Acorns may be problematic on sidewalks

    • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

    • Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea)  Best oak for autumn color

    • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)

    • Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

    • Post Oak (Quercus stellata)

    • Black Oak (Quercus velutina)

    • Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)

    • Willow Oak (Quercus phellos)

  • Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)


 

Shorter trees

  • Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus)

  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea, Canadensis, laevis)

  • Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)

 

Examples of shrubs that tolerate many streetside conditions

  • Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)

  • Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)

  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

  • Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina)

  • Common Elderbery (Sambucus canadensis)

  • Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)

  • High Tide Bush (Baccharis halimifolia) Commonly seen along highways

  • Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)

  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Streetside gardens can also be used as stormwater facilities to collect and purify runoff from roads and parking lots. In this case the plants need to be able to tolerate temporary inundation.

One gardener’s experience - Black-Eyed Susan

I started a hellstrip garden somewhere around 2006 with some acorus grass around a utility pole, followed the next year by a few iris and stella d’oro day lilies.* I’ve been expanding it and adding natives ever since.  It now measures 18’ 5” X 2’ with one half in mostly sun and the other in partial shade. I’ve tried a number of plants and learned a few lessons. 

 

Permission:  No one has ever called me out on the garden. I didn’t even think to ask permission, just started with the recognition that they could say “get rid of it.”  As it grew, they didn’t say anything. It took a big hit a few years ago when the electric lines went into a new house across the street, using “my” pole as a starting point but the utility worker even dug up my Baptisia and helped me move to another spot.  It was too big anyway and the rest was replanted. 

 

Biggest Problems:  Flopping and dog pee. I found that putting a low wire fence on all four sides helps with the former, but not much with the latter (if you’ve found a way to educate people let me know).  I’ve also eliminated a lot of plants that fell into the sidewalk or the road.  As the season wears on I also stake some of the taller plants. Unofficially I’ve also tied taller plants to the pole, as with the Common Milkweed I tried this year. The strip must be watered during droughts.

 

Other perils:  car doors, foot traffic, salt (presumably), snow plows, and the leaf collection vacuum which occasionally sucks up the leaves I put in the bed on purpose. 

 

Most Successful natives:  They need to be naturally short and sturdy.  Butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa), took two years to establish and I need to weed out the competitors, but it does very well.  I have yellow and orange.  Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are aggressive and need to be thinned, but bloom for a long time, mostly stand up straight and provide a lot of color. Thread Leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) blooms all season long. New this year, Tradescantia self-seeded itself into the garden and is coming back again after an initial cutback.

 

Unsuccessful—There are a lot that I’ve tried but the commonest problem is that they become too tall and therefore floppy even when trimmed:   asters, Common Milkweed, Goldenrod, and cleome*.  I’ve tried hard with Echinacea and Muhly Grass to no avail.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Another gardener’s experience: Moss Phlox

The Moss Phlox and Lamb's Ear* are the most successful.  They are low and hardy.  The neighbors love it when the Phlox blooms in spring, creating a colorful carpet. I must say that caring for the plants is more work than just mowing the strip every now and then.  But they look better.

A landscaper removed the grass and recommended planting with woolly thyme and I agreed.  The Woolly Thyme* died out. I interplanted with the Moss Phlox which took over.  The planting was much easier since the sod was already removed. I planted large phlox plants about 1' apart.  It took several years to fill in.  It required a lot of weeding until they did fill in.  Weeds still pop up on the edges, which are fairly easy to pull.  Grass pops up among the phlox which is time-consuming to pull and looks terrible.  The grass always gets ahead of me.

The Lamb's Ear* dies and turns grayish black in late fall.  It doesn't look nice unless you cut it off which is a lot of work.  It grows back fine the next year whether you cut it or not.

You may be able to see my "lawn" in the picture between the sidewalk and my native plant garden.  It was sod a few years ago.  Since I don't use herbicide, it's turned to a weed patch.  When it's mowed short, it looks nice.  It stays green even through droughts.  It needs to be mowed often because weeds shoot up unevenly, especially sedge.  The neighbors are perfectly happy with it, even the neighbors who spend lots of time and money on lawn care services to have a manicured lawn.

Another gardener’s experience: Moss Phlox and Coreopsis

Here is what I have in the "hell strip" at my house. I haven't planted the entire strip, just an ever-increasing area around my mailbox. The plants are Coreopsis verticillata 'Zagreb', Echinacea purpurea 'Kim's Knee High', and one of the blue cultivars of Phlox subulata (either 'Emerald Blue' or 'Flame Blue').

 

The Phlox subulata has been there for years, as well as some of the Coreopsis, and none have been bothered by any road salt that might have landed in the bed. The Phlox subulata grows so well there that I have to dig up runners every now and then to keep them from blocking storm water in the gutter!

The plants have stayed within bounds and are healthy, with the exception of one of the Coreopsis closest to the street. About half of it has died. I haven't figured out whether it's just a bad plant or whether I didn't amend the soil well enough. I'm not ready to call it a failure yet, though; I'll try to give it better drainage and see if that helps.

Coreopsis verticillata 'Zagreb' works well here because it doesn't flop like some other cultivars (e.g., 'Moonbeam', which I have in a bed by my front door), and I wanted to avoid having plants cover part of the sidewalk.  I haven't had to cut it back to keep it blooming all summer.

Echinacea purpurea 'Kim's Knee High' works well here because it's one of the shorter cultivars and has stayed mostly upright. This is the first year those plants are in the ground, and they'll probably be fuller and look even better next year. (This is not a Virginia native plant. It is native to the prairies.)

The Phlox is covered in beautiful flowers in the spring, and its foliage stays presentable-looking all summer. It stays green all winter, too, and doesn't have to be cut back in the spring.  I'll be looking for some native ephemeral plants to balance out the bed in the early spring before the Coreopsis and Echinacea begin growing.

As for hell-strip failures:  I could not get Symphyotrichum oblongifolium (Aster oblongifolius) to thrive here; it became mildewed and died. I moved surviving plants to a part-sun area in my backyard, and they're doing well, so maybe they couldn't take the heat and drier soil.   Helenium autumnale  ‘Short ‘n’ Sassy’ also died, even though I gave it supplemental water.

* Plants marked with an asterisk are not native, but they have not been found to escape cultivation and become invasive.

Help reverse the decline of native plants and wildlife in Northern Virginia by supporting our campaign.

Instagram_5_white.png
Pinterest_5_White.png

Questions or comments? 

Interested in being a campaign partner?  
Contact us here

Copyright 2018. Plant NOVA Natives. All Rights Reserved.